Within modern academic historiography, the periodisation of early Islamic history often runs as follows:
- 570 to 632 – the life of Muḥammad
- 632 to 661 – the rule of the Rashidun Caliphs
- 661 to 750 – the rule of the Umayyad Dynasty
- 750 to 1258 – the rule of the Abbasid Dynasty
This periodisation is derived from conventions within Mediæval Islamic historiography; thus, for example, the Hispano-Arab writer Ṣāʿid al-ʾAndalusī demarcated the life and rule of “the Prophet,” the subsequent successive rule of “al-Ṣaḥābah” (i.e., the ‘Rashidun caliphs’ ʾabū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUṯmān, and ʿAlī), the subsequent “rule of the Umayyads,” and finally, the subsequent rule of “al-Hāshimiyah” or “al-ʿAbbāsiyah.” Unfortunately, this Mediæval scheme and its modern academic descendent are extremely problematic in terms of consistency and basis—and although it’s true that periodisations are relative, they are nevertheless useful tools for the study of history and need not be incoherent. Thus, I argue that the conventional periodisation early Islamic history—or at least, the periodisation of the history of the Arab Empire and early Islamic society—needs to be revaluated.
For example: the reigns of ʾabū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUṯmān, and ʿAlī are traditionally designated within Sunnite sacred-history as the period of ‘the Rightly-Guided Successors’ (al-Ḵulafāʾ ar-Rāšidūn), and modern historians correspondingly refer to this period as “the Rashidun Caliphate” or similar. But why does ʿAlī make it onto this list? Not only did he only control a limited portion of the Arab Empire upon his spontaneous election by an assortment of local supporters and provincial mutineers in Madinah, but he was also defeated by Muʿāwiyah, who went on to rule securely for two decades. In terms of categorisation and periodisation, why should we accept the sectarian theology of the Shi’ites or the compromising sacred-history of the Sunnites regarding this matter? It makes more sense to regard ʿAlī as a rebel and Muʿāwiyah as the continuation of Arab imperial rule. History is typically delineated—at least in theory—around contemporaneous dominant parties and what actually happened (rather than what should have happened); beyond anachronistic theological back-projections, there is no reason to break this consistency and make a special exception for ʿAlī.
To take another example: why are the “Umayyads” and “Abbasids” given some kind of equivalency in their respective periodisation? This is a false comparison: the ‘Umayyads’ (banū ʾUmayyah) were a broad clan comprised of multiple families, whereas the ‘Abbasids’ (banū al-ʿAbbās) were a family within the larger ‘Hashimid clan’ (banū Hāšim). If we stick with an “Umayyad period,” then surely, we must amend the latter to the “Hashimid period” (which is actually more in line with some Mediæval Islamic periodisations). Alternatively, if we stick with an “Abbasid period,” then surely, we must sub-divide the “Umayyad period” according to the specific sub-Umayyad families who actually ruled the early Arab Empire during this time: the ‘Sufyanid family’ (banū Ḥarb) and the ‘Marwanid family’ (banū Marwān). This alternative would give us successive Sufyanid, Marwanid, and Abbasid periods (a scheme which also has some precedent within Mediæval Islamic historiography).
For a final example: why do modern historians count internecine conflicts as part of a regnal period? Why does ʿAlī supposedly rule from 656 to 661, even though he was only one of several factions within a civil war that he ultimately lost? Why does the reign of Muʿāwiyah supposedly begin in 661, even though he ruled Syria previously in a civil war which he won? Why does the reign of ʿAbd al-Malik supposedly begin in 685, even though most of the Arab Empire was controlled by the Zubayrid régime until the 690s? Rather than a sharp distinction between regnal periods, internecine conflicts are more accurately conceived of as interim phases in-between periods of uncontested or hegemonic rule. In the absence of an orderly and uncontested transfer of power, regnal periods should only be delineated approximately: thus, Muʿāwiyah’s reign as a sovereign in Syria begins during the 650s, whereas 661 is merely the year in which his reign becomes more broadly uncontested or hegemonic.
In lieu of the traditional scheme, on what basis can we establish a coherent periodisation of early Islamic history? My solution is to allow the internecine wars of the Arab Empire to form natural divisions, thus delineating periods which we can reasonably name after the dominant personality or family which characterised each period respectively (bar one exception):
- 620s to 630s – Muhammadian period
- 630s – Internecine War I
- 630s to 650s – Conquest period
- 656 to 661 – Internecine War II
- 650s to 680s – Sufyanid period
- 680 to 690s – Internecine War III
- 680s to 740s – Marwanid period
- 744 to 750 – Internecine War IV
- 740s to 810s – 1st Abbasid period
- 810 f. – Internecine War V
- 810s to 861 – 2nd Abbasid period
Given the periodisational problems outlined above (and the tenuousness nature of the available sources), the chronological demarcations here are often approximate; thus, for example, the civil war between the Umayyads, the Zubayrids, and various Kharijite and pro-Hashimid groups continued into the 690s, whilst the rule of the Marwanid dynasty in Syria began in the 680s during this civil war—hence, ‘Internecine War III’ and the ‘Marwanid period’ overlap.
What follows is a summary of the salient events and defining characteristics of each of these periods within early Islamic history, reconstructed on the basis of prioritising contemporaneous evidence over later literary-sources.
620s to 630s – Muhammadian period
The Muhammadian period is named after Muḥammad—a militant, pietistic, apocalyptic preacher amongst the Abrahamitic communities of western Arabia who established a Judæo-Arab polity in Madinah during the early 620s, and coordinated an invasion of Palestine during the early 630s.
630s – Internecine War I: Madinah vs. misc.
According to the later Islamic origins-narrative, the death of Muḥammad immediately precipitated a power-struggle throughout his former dominions in Arabia, as different tribes and factions variously submitted to new political and religious rulers. This ‘apostasy’ (riddah) was suppressed when Muḥammad’s friend ʾabū Bakr seized power via a coup d’état in Madinah and proceeded to subjugate and conquer his politico-religious rivals. The historicity of this conflict—insofar as it is described by later Islamic historiography—is highly questionable, however: in addition to chronological discrepancies and geographical improbabilities, the so-called ‘wars of apostasy’ (ḥurūb ar-riddah) are unmentioned by any contemporaneous sources, and even ʾabū Bakr remains unattested until the 690s.
If the riddah-wars are indeed ahistorical, then one can simply amalgamate the Conquest period into the Muhammadian period and retain the latter designation, given that ʾabū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUṯmān were all reportedly part of Muḥammad’s extended family: Muḥammad was married to ʿĀʾišah bint ʾabī Bakr and Ḥafṣah bint ʿUmar, whilst ʿUṯmān was married to ʾumm Kulṯūm bint Muḥammad and Ruqayyah bint Muḥammad. In short, the Conquest period can be easily reclassified as a continuation of the Muhammadian period, if the evidence demands it.
630s to 650s – Conquest period
In the two decades following the death of Muḥammad, his Madinah-based Arabian polity engaged in a series of rapid and sweeping conquests throughout the Middle East, including Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and parts of Iran. According to later Islamic historiography, this nascent empire was ruled by three of Muḥammad’s companions in succession: ʾabū Bakr (r. 632 – 634), ʿUmar ibn al-Ḵaṭṭāb (r. 634 – 644), and ʿUṯmān ibn ʿAffān (r. 644 – 656).
The Conquest period could instead be designed “the Umarid period,” given that ʿUmar was the only one of the alleged post-Muhammadian trinity of Arab rulers—ʾabū Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUṯmān—who is known to be mentioned by any early or contemporaneous sources; moreover, given the brevity of ʾabū Bakr’s alleged reign (two years) and the civil war that erupted during the reign of ʿUṯmān (who was murdered circa 656), it would seem that ʿUmar was both long-reigning and uncontested, and therefore, ostensibly the most representative and paradigmatic ruler of this period.
That said, Umarid is ill-fitting in comparison to its analogues: Muhammadian denotes Muḥammad and his agents, Sufyanid denotes the Sufyanid family, and so forth—whereas Umarid denotes ʿUmar plus ʾabū Bakr and ʿUṯmān. A better designation would encompass all three rulers (in the same way that the other designations snugly encompass their respective subjects), so in lieu of something more convenient, I have instead settled for Conquest period. In less than a decade (634 – 641), the nascent Arabian Empire conquered Arabia, the entire Fertile Crescent, and parts of Iran—this was the period of the great conquests, as opposed to the subsequent conquests of Central Asia, North Africa, and Spain under the Sufyanids and the Marwanids (which dragged on for decades upon decades).
656 to 661 – Internecine War II: Uthmanites vs. Alawites
According to later Islamic historiography, the murder of the Arab ruler ʿUṯmān by malcontent Arab colonists from Egypt and Kufah circa 656 precipitated an internecine war within the nascent Arab Empire, as different factions of the Qurashid tribe (banū Qurayš) battled each other for supremacy: the family of ʾabū Bakr (ʿĀʾišah, Ṭalḥah, and az-Zubayr) were defeated by the Hashimid clan at Basrah (c. 656), whilst the Hashimids were defeated in turn when their leader ʿAlī was murdered at Kufah (c. 661) after his failure to defeat Muʿāwiyah at Siffin (c. 657), ensuring the victory of the Umayyad clan. The rudimentary outlines of this conflict are recorded in early sources such as pseudo-Sebēos (wr. 660s), the Maronite chronicler (wr. pre-680), Yōḥannān (wr. 687), and the 705 Syriac King-List, although there are a few notable variances between these earlier sources and the later Islamic literary-sources.
650s to 680s – Sufyanid period
The Sufyanid period is named after the Sufyanid family of the Umayyad clan, which became ascendant during the second intra-Arab war (c. 656 to 661) when Muʿāwiyah ibn Ṣaḵr ibn Ḥarb defeated all of his rivals and subsequently ruled over the nascent Arab Empire for two decades.
680 to 690s – Internecine War III: Umayyads vs. Zubayrids vs. others
Following the death of Muʿāwiyah in 680 and the ascension of his son Yazīd, the nascent Arab Empire again dissolved into an internecine war: in Damascus, the Umayyad clan continued to follow Yazīd; in Kufah, a pro-Hashimid faction summoned al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī from Makkah to lead them in rebellion, but al-Ḥusayn was caught and killed en route by Yazīd’s forces; and in Makkah, ʾabū Bakr’s grandson ʿAbd Allāh ibn az-Zubayr successfully rebelled, prompting a similar rebellion in Madinah and a military response from Yazīd. Following Yazīd’s sudden death in 683, ibn az-Zubayr was able to extend his control over Hijaz, Yemen, Kufah, Egypt, parts of Iran, and even parts of the Levant, but his success was short-lived: Kufah soon fell to a pro-Hashimid faction led by al-Muḵtār for two years before ibn az-Zubayr retook the region in 687, whereupon Hadramawt, Yemen, and parts of Hijaz were overrun by a Kharijite faction based in Bahrayn. In the meantime, the Umayyad clan had elected Marwān ibn al-Ḥakam as their leader in 684, who defeated a rival pro-Zubayrid faction in Syria soon after his election and proceeded to wrest Egypt from Zubayrid control in 685; following his sudden death during the same year, Marwān’s son ʿAbd al-Malik inherited the Damascene throne and continued campaigning against the Zubayrid, Hashimid, and Kharijite foes of the Umayyad clan. After the Umayyad subjugation of Zubayrid-held Kufah in 691, ʿAbd al-Malik’s forces besieged Makkah and killed ibn az-Zubayr in 692, thereby resecuring Umayyad hegemony over the nascent Arab Empire; various Kharijite rebellions continued in Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Iran over the next decade, but these too were ultimately suppressed by the ascendant régime of ʿAbd al-Malik.
680s to 740s – Marwanid period
The Marwanid period is named after the Marwanid family of the Umayyad clan, which became ascendant when ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān emerged victorious from the third intra-Arab war (680 to 690s) and established the dynastic rule of his family over the early Arab Empire for five decades.
744 to 750 – Internecine War IV: Umayyads vs. Hashimids
Following a series of rebellions throughout the Arab Empire (in 740 and 742) and an intra-Marwanid succession-struggle (744 to 747), the ailing dynasty was overthrown by a pro-Hashimid coalition from Khurasan (747 to 750). The first Hashimid ruler of the new régime was a member of the Abbasid family named ʾabū al-ʿAbbās, who was elected caliph in 749 by various revolutionary leaders in Kufah. The death of ʾabū al-ʿAbbās soon afterward in 754 triggered an intra-Abbasid succession-struggle, from which ʾabū Jaʿfar al-Manṣūr emerged victorious.
740s to 810s – 1st Abbasid period
The Abbasid period is named after the Abbasid family, which became ascendant during the fourth intra-Arab and intra-Muslim war (740s to 750s) when a Hashimid coalition overthrew the Marwanid Dynasty and enthroned an Abbasid scion; following a brief intra-Hashimid power-struggle soon afterward (762), the Abbasid family secured its dynastic rule over the Arab Empire for the next century.
810 f. – Internecine War V: intra-Abbasid
Following the death of the Abbasid caliph ar-Rašīd in 809, a fratricidal war erupted between his two sons and designated heirs al-ʾAmīn (based in Baghdad) and al-Maʾmūn (based in Marw), from which the latter emerged victorious after the former was killed in 813. Various factions—including another Abbasid anti-caliph in Baghdad—resisted the imposition of the new régime, however, and al-Maʾmūn continued to face regional rebellions until his death in 833.
810s to 861 – 2nd Abbasid period
The fifth intra-Arab and intra-Muslim war—culminating in the fratricidal victory of al-Maʾmūn over his brother al-ʾAmīn—coincided with the fracturing of the Arab Empire as provinces began to secede into independent emirates, such as Aghlabid-ruled Tunisia and Tahirid-ruled Khurasan; the dominance of the Abbasid Dynasty lasted only a few decades longer, when the assassination of the caliph al-Mutawakkil ʿalá Allāh in 861 by Turkish slave-soldiers “marked the effective end of the ʿAbbāsid Empire, though the ʿAbbāsid caliphs stayed on, sometimes recovering limited power of one kind or another, down to 1258.”
In lieu of the existence of an objective basis for historiographical periodisation, I have chosen to at least follow a consistent pattern in my division of early Islamic history: the consecutive hegemonies of factions and families within the ruling class of the early Arab Empire, interspersed by recurring internecine conflicts. The dominant stratum within this ruling class was the Qurashid tribe, as every single successful ruler of the Arab Empire during early Islamic history—from Muḥammad and his family down to the last effective Abbasid caliph—was a Qurashid. To a great extent, therefore, early Islamic history is a story of incessant intra-Qurashid power-struggles, and arguably, the ‘Arab Empire’ should instead be designated as the ‘Qurashid Empire’ within modern historiography.
 As noted by Donner, ‘Periodization as a Tool’, 30.
 For example, Donner (ibid., 34) notes that “Western historians’ fidelity to this periodization is unwittingly influenced by the Islamic tradition’s own legitimist concerns.”
 ʾAndalusī (trans. Salem & Kumar), Science in the Medieval World, 43-45.
 In general, see: Donner, ‘Periodization’, 20 f.
 E.g., Crone, God’s Rule, 28; also see: Donner, ‘Periodization as a Tool’, 31-32 (regarding the ideological pro-Abbasid function of this periodisation).
 Ibid., 30.
 For the earliest historical references to these events (i.e., ps.-Sebēos, the Maronite chronicler, Yōḥannān, and the 705 Syriac King-List), see below.
 Donner (‘Periodization as a Tool’, 34) describes this common basis for periodisation as the “tendency to organize things following the holders of power.”
 E.g., ʾAndalusī (trans. Salem & Kumar), Science, 44.
 E.g., Ṭabarī ((trans. Williams), History, XXVII, 153-154) recorded a speech attributed to ʾabū al-ʿAbbās, who allegedly outlined the following periodisation of early Islamic history: (1) the reign of Muḥammad, followed by (2) the reign of “his companions,” followed by (3) the reign of the Sufyanids and (4) the reign of the Marwanids: “Then up reared the Banū Ḥarb and the Banū Marwān.” Naturally, this periodisation culminates in (5) the God-ordained rule of “the People of the House” (ʾAhl al-Bayt)—in practice, his very own family, the Abbasids (banū al-ʿAbbās).
 This last point has been addressed in Robinson, ‘Abd al-Malik, ch. 2.
 E.g., Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet, chs. 1, 3.
 For the traditional accounts of the faltah of ʾabū Bakr in Madinah, see: Madelung, The succession to Muḥammad, ch. 1; for one of the earliest accounts of the so-called ḥurūb ar-riddat, see: Balāḏurī (trans. Hitti), Origins, I, 143 f.
 E.g., the improbability of Muḥammad’s domination of eastern Arabia, and chronological discrepancies arising from a comparison with ps.-Sebēos (Hoyland, In God’s Path, 38-39).
 Heffron, ‘Early sources for abu Bakr’.
 Webb, Imagining Arabs, 199.
 For an outline derived from the earliest sources, see: Hoyland, In God’s Path, chs. 2-3.
 E.g., Maʿmar et al. (trans. Anthony), The Expeditions, 193 f. (for the ascension of ʾabū Bakr), 211 (for the designation of ʿUmar), 257-258 (for the election of ʿUṯmān).
 Ghabban, ‘The inscription of Zuhayr’, 212-213; ps.-Sebēos (trans. Thomson), Armenian History, 101; for commentary, see: Morris, ‘Early sources for ʿUmar’.
 Heffron, ‘Early sources for abu Bakr’.
 Ps.-Sebēos ((trans. Thomson), Armenian History, 154) mentioned—concerning the reign of ʿUmar’s successor—that a civil war erupted wherein two Arab factions “killed their king, plundered the multitude of treasures, and installed another king.” Subsequently, the 705 Syriac King-List (translated in: Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 394) identifies this murdered ruler: “And there reigned after him ʿŪthman for 12 years, and they were without a leader during the war of Ṣiffin (Ṣefē) for 5½ years.”
 E.g., Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 3rd ed., 46; the conquest of coastal North Africa (i.e., from Libya to the Atlas Mountains) took around seven decades (643 – 711); the conquest of Spain took around five decades (711 – 759); and the conquest of Transoxiana was only completed by 751.
 For the traditional account, see: Madelung, Succession, ch. 4; Ṭabarī, History, XV-XVII; etc.
 Ps.-Sebēos ((trans. Thomson), Armenian History, 154) recorded splitting of the Arabian Empire into four conflicting factions based respectively “in the direction of India” (i.e., Kufans and Basrans, who would then become Alawites), “Asorestan and the north” (i.e., the Muʿāwiyah-led Uthmanites in the Levant), Egypt and “the regions of the Tʿetalkʿ” (i.e., the Egyptians led by ʿAmr, who eventually sided with Muʿāwiyah), and finally, “the territory of the Arabs and the place called Askarawn” (i.e., the Uthmanites in the Arabian Peninsula, led by the family of ʾabū Bakr), which resulted in the murder of the “king” (i.e., ʿUṯmān) by some forces from Egypt and “the area of the Arabs,” who “plundered the multitude of treasures, and installed another king” before returning to their respective regions. Consequently, the Levantine “prince” Muʿāwiyah (who “was the second after their king,” i.e., an agent of ʿUṯmān) assembled his forces and went “into the desert,” where he “slew that other king whom they had installed” (i.e., ʿAlī), crushed the forces in “in the region of the Arabs,” and thence suppressed the forces in Egypt (who had allied with the Romans and converted to Christianity); in doing so, Muʿāwiyah had reunited the nascent Arabian Empire (“the possessions of the sons of Ismael”).
Besides ps.-Sebēos, the Maronite chronicler (translated in: Palmer, The Seventh Century, 29-30) recorded the murder of ʿAlī in Hirah, which precipitated the hegemony of the Damascus-based Muʿāwiyah; Yōḥannān (translated in: Brock, Studies in Syriac Christianity, 60-61) recorded the internecine war between the Arabs of the East (i.e., Iraq) and the Arabs of the West (i.e., the Levant), with the latter—identified as the Muʿāwiyah-led Umayyads—vanquishing the former and reuniting the Arabs; and finally, the 705 Syriac King-List (translated in: Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 394) identified ʿUmar’s murdered successor as ʿUṯmān, associated the subsequent internecine war with Siffin, and specified the duration of the conflict (5½ years).
 E.g., concerning the Battle of Siffin in particular, cf. Crone, Slaves on Horses, 203-204, n. 30; additionally, the Maronite chronicler (translated in: Palmer, The Seventh Century, 30) records that ʿAlī was murdered at Hirah, not Kufah; and finally, ps.-Sebēos ((trans. Thomson), Armenian History, 154) records that thousands of Arabians in Egypt (and/or possibly local allies—cf. Hoyland, In God’s Path, 259, n. 35) allied with the Byzantines and converted to Christianity, which is curiously omitted from the later Islamic narratives.
 The term “Banū Ḥarb (b. Umayyah)” appears in the History of aṭ-Ṭabarī (trans. misc.), e.g.: VIII, 98; XV, 159; XVIII, 176, 189, 190; XXVII, 154, 155.
 For a basic outline (derived from Islamic literary-sources such as al-Balāḏurī, aṭ-Ṭabarī, and ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥakam), see: E.I.2, s.v. ‘ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Zubayr’; additionally, see: Robinson, ‘Abd al-Malik, 22-44; a notable contemporary witness to this conflict was Yōḥannān (translated in: Brock, Studies in Syriac Christianity, 63 f.), who recorded the death of “Mʿawyā” and the ascension of his son “Yazdīn” (ibid., 63), the pious opposition to these “Westerners” by a certain “Zubayr” from the south (ibid., 64), a commander of the “Easterners” named “Mukhtār” (ibid., 64) who freed the slaves of Kufah for his army (ibid., 65-66), the defeat of the “Westerners” by the “Easterners”—despite an initial setback—in northern Iraq (ibid., 64-66), and the anxious revolts of the slave-owners of Kufah against “Mukhtār,” whom they killed (along with many of the freed-slaves) after several unsuccessful attempts (ibid., 66-67).
 Notably: the Kharijite and Berber rebellion in northern Africa circa 740 (alluded to in: Ṭabarī (trans. Hillenbrand), History, XXVI, 54; id. (trans. Williams), XXVII, 148); the Hashimid rebellion of Zayd ibn ʿAlī in southern Iraq circa 740 (id., XXVI, 4 f.), the Hashimid rebellion of Yaḥyá ibn Zayd in Khurasan circa 742 (ibid., 120 f.).
 Zuqninian Chronicler (trans. Harrak), Chronicle, III-IV, 166, 174-175, 177; Ṭabarī (trans. Williams), History, XXVI, 126 f.
 For a near-contemporaneous record of the Hashimid Revolution, see: Zuqninian Chronicler (trans. Harrak), Chronicle, III-IV, 178-180; for more details (albeit in a much later source), see: Ṭabarī (trans. Williams), History, XXVII (esp. 60 f.).
 Ibid., 145 f.
 Zuqninian Chronicler (trans. Harrak), Chronicle, III-IV, 196.
 For the 762 rebellion of Muḥammad al-Ḥasanī and ʾIbrāhīm al-Ḥasanī, see: Ṭabarī (trans. Williams), History, XXVIII, 142 f.
 E.I.2, s.v. ‘al-Maʾmūn’; Ṭabarī (trans. misc.), History, XXXI-XXXII; etc.
 Crone, God’s Rule, 88.